Under the next seven presidents, relations with the media were less dramatic. Though there were conflicts, according to experts, a basic sense of cooperation remained—until now. In the Trump era, they say, the news media is facing perhaps its biggest challenge ever. It’s not that the press isn’t used to hostility from the White House, according to Feldstein.
“But this is on a whole new level,” he says, because Trump isn’t attacking just individual reporters or news outlets, but “the news media as an institution.”
The new president has shown that he can sidestep the mainstream media completely to convey his message to the American public by using Twitter. The situation is unprecedented, say experts. Reporters and news organizations are now all wondering with a new urgency whether the president and the press can work together at all.
One reason is the recent explosion of alternative media. For many years, most Americans relied on a limited number of news outlets. Today, says Liebovich, there are an endless number of websites and cable news sources, many with a specific political bias. Much of what they produce is either not fact-checked or simply false. With so many options to choose from, it’s easy for consumers to read only the news sources they already agree with.
“Alternative media outlets make the White House less reliant than ever on the smaller number of mainstream news organizations that used to be the ‘gatekeepers’ of [news],” says Feldstein. The administration can also rely on spreading its message via “more sympathetic outlets like Breitbart,” he says. Internet websites also have a far greater reach than traditional media ever did.
Social media has changed the landscape too.
“Donald Trump’s Twitter account is the greatest bully pulpit that ever existed,” said Corey Lewandowski, one of the president’s campaign managers. The phrase bully pulpit was coined by Theodore Roosevelt to describe a president’s unique power to influence the public.
Indeed, Trump’s ability to broadcast his message without being questioned by the press is beyond any previous president’s. That has many observers worried, especially since mainstream media outlets have disputed the truth of many of Trump’s statements. Presidential adviser Kellyanne Conway has called the administration’s version of accounts “alternative facts.” NBC correspondent Chuck Todd, interviewing Conway, retorted that “alternative facts are not facts. They’re falsehoods.”
Ann Marie Lipinski, curator of the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard, recently spoke about the new challenges the media face. She said the political climate has become so contentious that every phrase the media uses to describe the new administration is being scrutinized and debated.
The big question now, she added, is, “Can we find a common language at this point in such a divisive moment?”